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Riding her horse through Tolay Lake Regional Park near Petaluma, Anne Bianucci followed a path that symbolizes both the phenomenal success behind the half-century expansion of Sonoma County’s enviable parks system as well as the challenges standing in the way of future growth.

Most days, Bianucci, 56, and her steed, Ruby, have the 3,400-acre park virtually to themselves. Sauntering up a hill, the Sebastopol woman enjoys commanding views of San Pablo Bay and several surrounding peaks. Below her, Tolay’s rolling hills, riparian oak woodland and seasonal wetlands spread out as far as the eye can see.

“It’s such a treasure,” Bianucci said. “So much of Sonoma County is there — the wetlands, the cattle, the working farm. And you feel like you are miles away from the city.”

Yet public access to this parkland, set aside beginning in 2005 with county open space dollars, has been limited for years to supervised events or permit-holding visitors. Improvements for general access have come slowly, frustrating south county residents and parkgoers. Tolay is finally scheduled to open fully to the public in early 2018.

The property reflects both the county’s ambitious vision of continued expansion of its Regional Parks system and the steep obstacles, financial and otherwise, associated with opening brand-new parks with taxpayer dollars.

The Regional Parks network, born 50 years ago humbly with just one property — Doran Beach — now encompasses 56 parks, trails and beaches, totaling 12,000 acres.

The county’s plans leading into the next half-century include adding prized lands to the public domain, primarily through purchases made possible by the taxpayer-funded Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.

Slated additions include pristine coastal lands near Jenner with stunning ocean views and new trails in and around Bodega Bay linking with the California Coastal Trail. Also on the drawing board: forested property in the Mark West Creek watershed outside of Santa Rosa, with a full compliment of native wildlife just beyond the city limits.

In Sonoma Valley, the site of what is now the Sonoma Developmental Center has potential as new parkland, which would adjoin Jack London State Historic Park and North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park.

For those enthralled by public open space, the possibilities are dazzling.

“It’s the right way to live,” said Shirlee Zane, chairwoman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. “We’ve got all these beautiful open spaces. I don’t know any county that has quite what we’ve got. I want to be zealous about how we keep these places open to the public and pristine, and maintain them over the long term.”

Zane cited the health benefits of spending time in parks. Others point to the economic activity associated with access to open spaces, and the advantages for environmental health.

Bill Keene, general manager of the county Open Space District, created by voters in 1990, said parklands protect vital wildlife corridors and natural resources. He called out the planned 1,100-acre regional park in the Mark West Creek area off Porter Creek Road.

“Whether you’re on a well, or (Sonoma County) Water Agency water, the work we’ve done on Mark West assures that high-quality water comes out of the stream,” Keene said.

Over its own existence, the Open Space District has transferred nearly 6,300 acres to Regional Parks either for the creation of new parks or as additions to existing parks. Another 4,000 acres are awaiting transfer.

More than $67 million has been spent by the Open Space District to protect lands turned over to Regional Parks and nearly $40 million on lands awaiting transfer.

The backlog points to the difficulties of opening up protected lands to the public and seizing upon more opportunities in the future.

Bert Whitaker, director of county parks, cited funding shortfalls as the “overwhelming obstacle” standing in the way of addressing ongoing needs in parks and fully realizing opportunities for growth.

That vision, outlined in a 2015 parks plan, includes construction of a multi-use trail in Sonoma Valley as an alternative to cyclists and pedestrians now forced onto busy Highway 12, remodeling picnic areas and other infrastructure at Cloverdale River Park, and, in Healdsburg, renovations and improvements at Veterans Memorial Beach.

Whitaker also pointed to the need for renovations at Maxwell Farms Regional Park and Larson Park, both in Sonoma Valley.

“The infrastructure is 40 years old in some places, and crumbling,” he said.

Tolay best exemplifies the obstacles with opening brand-new, wilderness-style parks. The Open Space District purchased the 1,727-acre Tolay Lake Ranch property in 2005 before later transferring the site to regional parks. A slightly smaller parcel adjacent to the ranch property, purchased by the Sonoma Land Trust in 2008, has more recently been added to the park’s footprint.

Bianucci, the Sebastopol horse rider, is one of about 4,400 people who hold special permits to visit the site.

“The public deserves access to these lands,” Whitaker said. “They were paid for with public dollars.”

Andy’s Unity Park, scheduled to open on Santa Rosa’s southwestern outskirts this year, represents a different park model, one that seeks to serve a neighborhood with no shared green space by offering a place to shoot hoops, barbecue or simply hang out.

The county parks system runs on an annual budget of about $23 million, paying for 90 full-time employees and an equal number of seasonal workers. The costs are largely supported by fees paid by users. That makes any major expansion plans contingent upon county officials finding additional sources of revenue.

In November, voters in unincorporated areas of the county narrowly turned down a half-cent sales tax increase that would have brought in an estimated $95 million in revenue to the parks system. Officials are tentatively planning to seek a similar ballot measure next year, albeit at a lower amount and including all county voters.

Whitaker made the case that the process of planning for new parks and operating them for public use is painstaking by design.

“As a public land agency, we’re obligated to proceed very carefully with the planning process and do our due diligence with the public property,” he said. “That takes time and money, and if the money is not there, it definitely extends the time frame as we fundraise each step of the way.”

Whitaker pointed to the 1,100-acre regional park spanning Taylor Mountain southeast of Santa Rosa as another example of the prolonged wait for general access at some parkland. The property opened in 2013 — 18 years after the Open Space District acquired the property — and only now is starting to see a promised network of trails beginning to take shape across the landscape.

“That is essentially volunteers going out there monthly and building a few hundred yards at a time, where what we hear from our users and our community is that they would actually like to see significant trail miles in those areas and gain public access sooner, rather than later,” Whitaker said.

Bianucci confessed to having mixed feelings about Tolay opening to the public after so many years of restricted access. While she welcomes others being able to discover the mostly hidden gem, that also will mean more park users competing for space on the trails she and Ruby often have had to themselves.

“I love having the peace and quiet out there, but I feel a little guilty more people aren’t able to experience it,” Bianucci said.

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